“Lights, Camera, Asbtraction!”
Film Review Published December 30, 2022
It was almost impossible for me to tell whether the frenetic and indulgent opus Babylon was a celebration, indictment, or parable of the Golden Years of Hollywood — but if the significant investment of time (three years in the making), money ($110 million+) and creativity (mega A-listers) was intended to collectively translate into audiences, it may actually be a sort of eulogy for the projected artform itself going out in a blaze of glory.
And I could only think, why not? as I sat in an empty theatre watching the 3 hour and 9 minute roller coaster with only one other patron, who (as it turned out) fell asleep soon after the first act and didn’t wake again until the bombastic credits were rolling.
I suspect that was because all the period-razzledazzle, nude choreography (by Mandy Moore), extravagant scenery, costumes and special effects in the world just can’t quite make you care enough to get engaged with any one character in a zany and sometimes out-of-control menagerie of famous and fabricated people who created, and then sold us, ‘the movies.’ And folks, I’m here ta’ tell ya: it weren’t all pretty.
Booze, blow, ether and uppers all fuel this narrative’s maniacal speed and pace behind the scenes of the rapid movie production scene in the 1920s that was intent and struggling to keep the public addicted and coming back for more, as studio pushers moved the product into pop culture and the imaginations of every one who came under its spell.
Instead of golden, it’s a vulgar world. If the elephant excrement, vomiting, overdosing, spitting, sucking of venom, and beheading of live rats doesn’t convince you the studio system is brutal and violently eats its own, then maybe the parties filled with tits and ass, penile pogo-sticks, and freaky sexual possibilities might. Something will make you squirm, and that may be very intentional.
Oscar award-winning writer and director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La la Land) became fascinated with the period of transition between the silent film era and ‘the talkies,’ and in researching he discovered, then uses, the debauchery of the times for his colorful background where the budding Hollywood industry struggles to shift from one era to another. And to no surprise, the transformation is hardest on the creatives.
The cast includes caricatures you’d expect, but some are still surprising. Leading the way is the tortured silent era star working on a comeback in Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, at the top of his game when the film begins, but mediating his mortality as a screen gem by the end. Following in his enigmatic Icarus journey is the aspiring young starlet “Nellie LaRoy,” played in full and ultimately driving force by Margot Robbie.
But most intriguing and moving was relative newcomer Diego Calva as Manny Torres, the dashing young Mexican-American who accidentally befriends Nellie, then falls madly in love with her, and finally becomes her confidante, studio-protector and publicist. Or Jovan Adepo as the trumpet player Sidney Palmer, a black musician who finds opportunity and respect in the film business, only to see it reduced to humiliation. Or Li Jun Li as the enigmatic singer/director Anna May Wong. Or even Jean Smart as the social reporter and industry influencer Elinor St. John. They all seemed, to me, some of the only redeemable souls to be found, and they give Babylon much needed humanity and life throughout.
How the next decade plays out over the narrative is part satirical history lesson, part cautionary note, and part revenge-comedy as the story gets to also make fun of all the studio heads, production headaches, and the realities of making movies at the same time. For non Angelenos, it might be a little too distant and specific, but for those who enjoy winking at the details, there are many.
This latest addition to the Hollywood on Hollywood trend joins The Fabelmans from Steven Spielberg, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from Quentin Tarantino, and (in a way) Jordan Peele’s Nope — all as treatises on moving image culture in the largest sense. And what Chazelle and the dozens of fascinating performances have created is another chapter in the dream factory biography, to be sure.
I was rooting for Babylon to take me over, and with so many exciting moments and sublime sequences, it can’t be dismissed as any sort of failure. It just feels like a star holding onto their fame for too long, or asking for one more take and maybe straying from the only rule in show biz … always leave em wanting more.